My father Robert grew up in Shaker Heights outside of Cleveland Ohio. I have been to the house where he grew up numerous times to vast my grandparents, his mother, and his step father Terry. The house itself is three stories tall, with old lighting and bathroom fixtures from the 1930’s. The driveway. Which leads to a two-car garage filled with junk, is more tar used to repair cracks, than the original asphalt. The brick side of the old house is covered in green ivy, reaching up to the third story, which serves as something as a lookout for the house, with only one narrow flight of stairs leading up to it.
My father used to tell me and my brother stories about his time growing up in that house under “the warden”, which is what they used to call Terry. He told me how Terry used to make him pick up sticks in the front yard for four hours every weekend before he could go out to see his friends. My father and his younger brother CJ used to break the sticks into smaller lengths to make it look like they’d done more work than they had.
When they did manage to escape, their adventures, which spread throughout Shaker Heights and into the city of Cleveland, made it clear why their step father didn’t trust them much. I only know some of the stories, but there are still yet other’s that go untold, with my father promising, “I’ll tell you when you’re older”. Unfortunately, when I did come of what I assumed to be a trustworthy age, my father was long since gone from my life.
My father and his friends used to shoot bottle rockets off the roof of the house when no one was home, so that they would fly and explode under cars stopped at the intersection down the street. There was another episode, when my father spent the entire summer systematically shooting out the neighbor’s garage windows with a BB gun, until one day the police showed up at the door of the house. My father, at first tried to deny any accusations. “Ballistics traced the shots to that third story window”, the police officers said, and pointed up to the sharpshooter’s hideout, that at that moment, might as well have the Texas school book depository. Then my father, as if overcome with a sudden realization, replied calmly. “I don’t own a BB gun, but my younger brother does”. CJ, in an act of brotherly reverence and sacrifice, covered for him, and spent the rest of the summer working to pay off the damage to the windows.
There were close calls in the streets of Shaker Heights. Once, while throwing “dirt bombs”, which were essentially balls of small rocks and compressed earth, over some bushes to hit the windshields of stopped cars at an intersection, a man got out and came after them. My father, who hadn’t thrown that particular one, walked slowly away. When the guy caught him, he apparently, as my father told me “beat the ever-loving shit” out of him. When the police arrived, they let my father go, because the beating he’d been given was so severe there was the possibility for him to file charges for assault.
There were strange moments, though those were only recounted to me late at night, probably because my father had been drinking and quieted his mind a bit. He told me of the night he and CJ and a few friends had found a man bleeding to death next to a shotgun in the driver’s seat of his car. My father told me the man looked him right in the eyes through the car window. They all ran away, and never found out what happened to the guy after that. There was another story, I remember my father told me outsider a restaurant in Cleveland when we were visiting as a family, that a friend of CJ’s one day decided to walk into Shaker lake with his pockets and book bag filled with stones and drowned himself.
In fall days when the news was filled with mafia car bombings in Cleveland parking lots, my father would steal American flags from Police station flagpoles. He and his friends made a game of scouting them out, running up and taking down the flag, and then running away before anyone even knew it was happening. This went on, my father told me, for about a year, before Terry found the garbage bags filled with flags in the third-floor closet and was furious.
Yet despite the cinematic quality of my father’s misadventures, he was also the first to admit to me many times, that he was, in his own words, “an absolute fuck up”. He would recount to me stories that had a much sadder and foreboding message, like how his college counselor in high school didn’t even bother showing up to meet with him. He apparently didn’t think my father could get in anywhere. He would tell me how he turned things around when he got lucky and got into college, and then worked harder still to get into medical school, giving up weekends and afternoons when he was dating my mother, to study organic chemistry for his exams. He was finished with his residency around the time that he married my mother, and then they had me, while living in a small house in Framingham Massachusetts. I’ve been to the old house, once years ago when I was there for a hockey tournament. I was a terrible hockey player. But the night we’d arrived, we drove by the house where they first began. It’d been taken over by a reclusive man, who has boarded up all the windows, and barricaded the front door with junk amongst the small overgrown front lawn.
I’ve seen old photographs of my young father. His friends used to call him “Robbis-Kid”. In the photos, he’s there in a camera-flash-lit scene, somewhere in the woods by Shaker Lake, wearing a backward baseball cap covering his unkempt curly black hair, smoking a Paul Mall or Lucky Strike. In those scenes with him, there’s always a girl, one of his various girlfriends from back then. That’s what he’d tell me anyway, sending a joking and yet also knowing look to my mother if she was around when he was recounting such stories. He could list off a whole host of names, though the one that sticks out to me the most is Stacy, whose father everyone believed was in the mafia. The rest seem to fade into an amalgamation of youthful faces contained in film stock on drug store photo prints. The athletes, the druggies, and the cool kids. Names with no set faces to match, legends with no bearing on any tangible world, except for the one captured in a camera flash.
There is one story that Rob and CJ told me of something tangible left behind. They once stole a gallon of mercury from the University School science wing. After they’d taken it from the building, apparently handling that much mercury spooked them, so they buried it somewhere on the University School campus. They never did come back for it, though CJ speculates the ground where they buried it has been re-developed, and the fate of the gallon of mercury remains a mystery. The rest of the signs and symbols of their Cleveland lives are in the form of burn marks on the carpet of the third story room, and fragments of glass not swept up from the side of the neighbor’s garage.
I used to ask my father when I was about eighteen and about to graduate from high school, if he thought that he and I could have been friends if we had both met in our late teens. I’d sometimes bring this question to him while we stood in the kitchen at night when he got home from work around two or three in the morning. It was something I could not help but wonder after years of hearing stories of this other person my father apparently used to be. In my adolescent insecurity, I wondered if I would have lived up to the debaucherous expectations of my father’s former self. He could never give me a straight answer, not for fear of disappointing me, but because he couldn’t remember that older self on a personal level. He would look a little blank when I would ask him things like that, as if the stories were about some kid he had once known, rather than the person he himself had been.
Family friends have always told me that at least in appearance, I am like my father. Sometimes I think about the resemblance in the bathroom mirror. I too have curly hair, and though it has often been unkempt the way his was in photographs, I never wore a baseball cap. My skin has always been paler, and I’m not very athletic. I could never run away from police stations waving a stolen flag to the cheers of a band of comrades in triumph. In high school, I only had a few friends, and we did very little on weekends beyond playing video games and ordering pizza. I didn’t grow up in Cleveland Ohio, in the suburbs of the crumbling former steel city where the Edmund Fitzgerald made her last port of call. I grew up on Cape Cod, to a loving father and mother, who never beat me, or made me pick up sticks in the yard, or treated me unfairly. These are physical barometers I can point to, when I need to see what was different between us.
I always knew my own answer to the question I used to ask him when we would stand together in the kitchen at night. I don’t think my father at my age would have liked me very much. I think he would probably have messed with me if I ever got in the way of his adventures. But I don’t begrudge these imaginary crimes from the kid my father used to be. It isn’t really me who should come face to face with Robbis-Kid, and share a Paul Mall in the woods by Shaker Lake on a summer’s night way back in the late 1970s. It is my father, who should look at the curly hair and placid face of his former self and think about the resemblance.
Shortly after my twenty first birthday, I was studying in Dublin Ireland for a semester. On an afternoon like many of the others, my mother called me on the phone. She told me, with the voice of someone who had been holding onto something for a long while, that my father had moved out of our house, and was now living with a woman named Heather, who he’d been seeing for a long while in secret. She’d wanted to keep this from me while I was away so as not to worry me, but my brother and my father had almost gotten into a fist fight a few days before when my brother confronted my father for the first time, and she felt she couldn’t keep pretending like nothing was wrong. I told my mother on the phone that I didn’t really much care what happened to my father. I then explained my reasoning with the sterility and objectivity. I was an entire ocean away, on the cusp of moving out of the house completely when I finished college. What did it matter if my father had left my mother, and had carried on an affair throughout Christmas, and probably during thanksgiving and the beginning of my senior year? I mean, after all, my father and I were never terribly close. He only told his wild stories when my friends were around to hear them. They all loved him, laughed at his escapades, and I laughed along. What did I know, really, of Robert? What did I know of myself? I tried hard to believe this lie in a state of what I can only assume was shock.
Apparently, I knew very little.
The calls I received from him while I was in my tiny student apartment in Dublin were as sterile as the hospital where he worked. He through around words and phrases like “maintaining a relationship” and that he was proud of me for “being adult about this”, in comparison to my brother. My father had threatened to call the police on his youngest son when they almost came to blows. It must have been a dramatic moment that I missed, complete with raised voices and blood lust. As I listened, his voice droned on through the receiver. I repeated to myself a line of reasoning in my head. What the fuck did I care for stories like this? They might as well have happened to someone else’s father, another good doctor who grew up in Ohio. I’m sure that there are many. I kept telling myself that under my breath, until three weeks later I was standing at my kitchen sink in my tiny student apartment, and everything came apart in me at once. I spent the night in the corner, pulling at my hair. I couldn’t stop thinking about him. What had happened to the well-meaning prankster of Cleveland Ohio? Was the spirit of the young man, who’s stories had delighted me and my friends for years, finally dead, as my father had chosen to reinvent himself as the good doctor to another family? The thought went back and forth in me, while I sat against the radiator in the kitchen, waiting for the sun to come up over Dublin. I supposed then, that the kid in my father had faded from him like ghosts disappear when the dawn finally comes, and the old house stops creaking. But like with all ghost stories, I have no way of knowing the truth.
I believe what was left of Robbis-Kid disappeared from my father when the first punches were thrown by my brother outside my father’s new condominium. I don’t think even ballistics could trace the legend of that child of Cleveland back to the present, even if there are physical signs of him still lodged in the wall of the neighbor’s garage. His spirit is maintained in the old tales that my father told my brother and me. There are whispers of his stories of the warden in us, and of autumn afternoons spent picking up sticks. There were whispers in photographs of my father as a young man, whispers of just what began in that ivy-covered brick house by the patchwork tar driveway, and of what ended in the good doctor decades later, with two children in the world, left wondering just who exactly their father was all that time.
I wonder sometimes when exactly the moment was, the exact day when my father looked at his own hands, and was no longer as the good doctor, or the father of Ryan and Cooper, but rather something disconnected entirely from the kid he once was. Suddenly, he realized he was fifty years old, and was far away from the spirit of his friends from Cleveland, or his stolen flags. His adventures he realized then, were well and truly in the past. Of his former treasured self, there were only stories left, which had begun to fade like the blood draining from the man in the car whose eyes met my fathers on some forgotten night in a forgotten year on some side street in Shaker Heights. I suspect it was that moment, when he saw my brother and myself, the product of his age, that he realized he no longer knew himself. It was in that instant that he made the move to run out me and my brother’s lives like a bottle rocked flies when fired at a car. The impact of this trajectory then shattered my brother and I like shards of glass which for a whole summer collected on the ground at the base of the neighbor’s garage door. He struck out from the old house and the garage filled with useless junk like useless children and a useless family, in order to find what he felt he’d lost all those years ago. For his sake, I truly do hope that he finds what he is looking for.